When it comes to keeping the lights and air conditioning on this summer, how much of a safety margin do we need?

After all, summertime is when electricity demand surges, as an entire nation reaches for the thermostat in the midst of a heat wave. Overall, our grid is getting older, and the demands are getting higher.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the agency that’s paid to worry about the power grid in the United States and Canada, says we’re reasonably good shape for the summer—except for Texas and maybe California. Of course, given how large Texas and California are, a worst case scenario could leave some 60 million Americans sweltering in the summer heat.

As you’ll see on this map, most regions of the country have enough capacity in reserve. The percentage on the left is the actual reserve available, while the percentage on the right is the “reserve margin” that NERC says should be enough to get by. Most parts of the country are doing pretty well — in fact some, like the Gulf and Central regions, have two or three times the reserve they need.

Only one part of the country is actually below the reserve margin: Texas. Demand in Texas is outstripping supply (demand has increased by 2.3 percent in 2012-13, but supply has only increased 1.4 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration). Texas utilities may bring mothballed generating stations back into service and use more aggressive “demand response” programs aimed to manage increased demand during peak periods.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean there will be blackouts this year – only that Texas has less of a safety margin than it should have if things go wrong.

California has enough reserve on paper, but may be cutting it close in reality because two units of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station are off-line and due to be retired. California officials have put a number of steps in place to bolster service.

NERC says two other factors may have a big impact on whether the lights stay on this summer, and they’re both, well, elemental: wind and water.

Water will be an issue because of expected drought in the Western states this summer. That matters to power plants because many conventional generating stations draw cooling water from rivers and other bodies of water. If water levels drop, the plants may not get the water they need, or may exceed environmental restrictions on how much they can use. That isn’t a certainty, but NERC warns that utilities will need to watch out for it.

Wind is an issue, ironically, because wind power is becoming more and more popular. In fact, government studies have shown that wind farms and natural gas account for almost all the new generating capacity in the United States over the past decade. As a carbon-free, renewable power source, wind has huge benefits.

But it also has a significant drawback, which is that the power you get from wind farms fluctuates widely depending on the weather. That means that you can’t automatically count on wind farms to be producing wind power just because electricity demand is peaking—it’s either a windy day or it’s not. This also means that grid operators need to adjust to significant changes in wind energy output. That is doable — European countries that rely more on wind are learning to deal with this. But we need a more modern grid to do it here.

Overall, the U.S. power grid is both huge and aging. There are a whole host of energy options that will never get off the ground without a better grid: electric cars, expanding wind and solar, and, as the latest reports show, just keeping up with demand.

Modernizing the grid will take money, and and it isn’t something we can do while we’re focused on the short term. Without a better grid, we may get through this summer, but we’ll still have to worrying about the summers to come.

Comments

  1. Scott
    Charlotte, NC
    June 29, 2013, 10:11 am

    Our nation would benefit from building new nuclear stations. Each can provide 1,000+ MW of carbon-free baseload. Remember that as nuclear plant s close down, as in California, that magnitude of electric load will be replaced with carbon-producing power. Used fuel in nuclear is an issue that has a technological solution, it does not have a political solution. Policymakers are at a point (and have been for some time) where they need to step up and permit re-processing of used fuel to tap that good resource for more energy. Easy and safe to do scientifically.

  2. Aviana
    Las Vegas
    June 26, 2013, 9:23 pm

    Mandating removal of alway “on” electronics would reduce energy. I have a gas stove which will NOT function unless the electric cord is plugged in. Once plugged in the always “on” functions are drawing electricity. This is just one example in my home.

  3. jmp
    new york
    June 24, 2013, 12:26 pm

    gerard – best estimate is that there are about 11 million illegals in the USA. About 3.6% of the population. In 50 years the population has increased by about 50% according to you. When will we hit a Billion? ( I figure about 150 years)

  4. Martin
    Alberta
    June 20, 2013, 3:35 am

    You may be right Gerard, but in the end it comes down to a aging (and in my honest opinion, poorly designed) system.

    The safest bet is to have some kind of solar energy (sun=heat+energy) for each American. There’s been a joint community effort in southern Alberta regarding this.

    From my best recollection, the community as a whole went down between 4% and 5%. Considering how few people actually participated in this (98 people out of 1200), with just a simple solar setup costing roughly $280 on the bottom end, and one person actually receiving a payment from the power company of $14.77, one would think “how”?

    It’s not all that complicated, which shocked the living bejebus out of me. A little exploration of e-bay actually found out for me, that this same solar panel he used was available in BULK.

    Needless to say I’m starting to wonder “if I wire this much energy into the system, not only will I save on Co2 emissions, but I’ll be cutting down on another persons as well.” After a little (painful) number crunching, I found that not only would my own home be covered, with a healthy supply of OTG (off the grid) power in case of an emergency, but a full bulk order (1,000 individual mini platelets) would cover another 3 homes. After all is said and done that comes out to a little over $5700 including all the parts needed to interface with the main grid AND segregate myself from it at will.

    For the most part this is “low” maintenance.

    Think of it this way:

    1: Invest small at first
    Leave plenty of room to expand

    2:Re-invest the savings
    Save for now, bulk is cheaper

    3:Bulk Bulk Bulk!
    Bulk is always the cheapest option, but it means you’ll have a-lot of assembling/soldering to do

    4:Re-invest again
    Expanding your solar arrays is nice and all, but there is so much more that can be done. Expand to Vertical Windmills.

    5: The winds of change
    Expanding to Vertical Windmills is a big accomplishment. Moreso, they can be stacked vertically and it does NOT matter which direction the wind is blowing. But (uh oh, the “but”),finding one is going to be near impossible as not many specialty companies cater to small-scale residential energy generation. You’ll have to buy the parts, and make it yourself. This is only an option if you’re for all intents and purposes, “hell bent” on making a difference.

    Also, this method not only distributes the energy nationwide so the power grids can carry it without hassle, but with enough people participating in it, will eventually decentralize
    the smaller grids themselves, making medium/small generating stations more of an “emergency option”, rather than a “must have”.

    Actual research was done for this reply.

    Hope this gives people that last push (you know, those people teetering on the edge of their seats on the verge of actually doing it, but just not quite) to do something.

    It’s our world, id rather look up NatGeo and see palm trees, and not a barren desert.

  5. Gerard
    Texas
    June 18, 2013, 7:30 am

    TEXAS AND CALIFORNIA HAVE EACH SEEN HUGE POPULATION INCREASING IN THE LAST TWENTY YEARS, MUCH OF IT DUE TO ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION FROM LATIN AMERICA. IT’S NO WONDER THERE IS NOT ENOUGH ELECTRICITY OR WATER WITH SUCH A LARGE ILLEGAL POPULATION. ANOTHER REASON TO CLAMP DOWN ON IMMIGRATION, BOTH LEGAL AND ILLEGAL. THE POPULATION OF THE U.S HAS SWOLLEN FROM 190 MILLION 50 YEARS AGO TO OVER 300 MILLION NOW. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE ARE AN OVER-POPULATION MESS OF A BILLION PEOPLE?